Until recently, Israeli female teenagers enrolled in religious schools barely got to hear about feminist ideas. In fact, they were taught that feminism is a Western, anti-religious idea to be avoided. (At religious schools - state-run or private - basic curriculum is supplemented by Jewish and religious studies; and pupils and staff adhere to religious norms.)
However, over the past few years, there has been a greater awareness about issues such as gender equality in the country. Women now voice their opinions more freely and understand that the conservative education they have received so far is not practical and cannot fulfill their needs of today.
In order to give momentum to this gradual change, Chana Pasternak, Director, Kolech-Religious Women's Forum ('Kolech' is Hebrew for 'your female voice'), an NGO, developed a revolutionary empowerment programme for female adolescents enrolled in religious schools across the country.
Interestingly, Pasternak's forum was established in 1998 to bring together observant Jewish women into a cohesive community; and to use dialogue to raise public awareness about the inferior status of women in religious life. The forum works on various issues: including increasing awareness about equality between the sexes in a religious society; and the elimination of violence, particularly sexual violence, against women and girls. The forum also draws attention to legal problems of 'mesuravot get' (wives who have been refused a divorce by their husbands).
According to Pasternak, education at religious girls' schools is far from egalitarian. Girl students who complete high school feel that issues of importance to them are never addressed. In fact, after graduating, such students go out into the real world bitter and wondering why their position in society is much lower than their male counterparts, says Pasternak.
A religious orthodox woman herself, Pasternak devised the programme with the intention of educating teenage girls on gender equality. The programme, introduced this year as a pilot in 50 high schools, includes 18 groups of a minimum 20 participants each. "We intend to use the feedback from these groups and extend the programme to teachers, since there is clearly a need to expose teachers, too, to these ideals," she says.
Sessions are held on: Jewish women as role models; feminine and masculine identity in children's legends and Jewish sources; and on expectations from today's male and female adolescents. Girls also learn about modesty (an important value in Judaism) and have open discussions on related issues such as: why practice modesty and to what extent?; what is the Jewish sexual modesty code and where does it come from?
Another basic value, 'the Jewish family', is also examined. The girls learn about a patriarchal relationship vis-ï¿½-vis an egalitarian one, about domestic violence and sexual abuse.
When Pasternak initially approached schools to introduce this programme in the curriculum, she received typical reactions. "Many school principals (male and female) raised eyebrows and objected to the new idea as it seemed to threaten the status quo of the religious Jewish male superiority in family and in society. Fortunately, there were enough people happy to make the programme a part of their annual curriculum. We are delighted to find that gradually the school circle is growing and that parents, especially mothers, are delighted that such issues are finally being addressed freely," says Pasternak.
Many students too have remarked that it is the first time "someone is talking to us about what's really important to us".
Currently, the Kolech programme is for the ninth grade onwards and consists of 10 two-hour sessions. "Of course, 10 sessions are not enough," admits Pasternak, "but they still increase awareness and encourage further learning. "
Besides introducing the concepts on feminism, the programme has provision for discussions on relationships with the opposite sex. "There is no doubt that a girl, having taken this programme will be much more assertive and will be able to distinguish between what's good for her and what isn't. These girls will grow up to be more informed and have self-recognition, which was lacking before. At least, I am sure these women will stand up for their rights and know when they are being affected negatively," believes Pasternak.
"The subjects of exclusion and female discrimination are much more common in the religious society than in the secular one," explains Pasternak. "There is no doubt that the coming decade will focus on women in Halacha (a body of Jewish religious law that includes Biblical laws, Talmudic laws, and laws formed during later times). Religious feminism is the most active and is undergoing many changes. The general public is now more sensitive towards injustices against women. And this feeling is slowly penetrating into the rabbinical courts (where women who seek a divorce are abused by not being able to freely exit the chains of Jewish religious matrimony) as well. I foresee the next trend of Jewish feminism in the shape of alternative rabbinical courts. In my vision, these institutions will be very popular and will shake up the existing extremely conservative religious establishment. Kolech, with its revolutionary educational programme, is playing a part in all this by increasing public awareness and trying to usher in change."